This blog has been quiet as of late, but I’ve got a new piece up over at Streets.MN about why taxing land and buildings at different rates would encourage more productive/efficient land uses in the city’s urban core while discouraging the kind of over-speculation that creates real estate bubbles. The piece looks at one intersection downtown where one commercial landowner (owners of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange building) pays 42 times more property tax per square foot of land than his neighbor (a surface parking lot). You can get the full story here.
There’s been a lot of griping from this and other sites about how the overabundance of surface parking lots in downtown Minneapolis is destroying the character and potential of what should be our city’s densest neighborhoods. This blog has paid a lot of attention to the Downtown East corridor in particular (between the Metrodome and the business corridor—see here and here and here if you’re new around these parts).
There have been indignant calls for someone to do something about all of these parking lots, because, well, just look at them! They’ve been called blemishes, scars, deserts, seas. Writers have scoured their thesauruses and dug deep into their collective Bag of Metaphors trying to figure out different ways of saying the same thing: Something Is Wrong Here. And usually, in our desperation, we appeal to the only “someone” we believe has the resources and the power to do something about the problem: “the City,” with a capital C.
When all of these lots are privately owned by people who can, by law, do with the land what they please, what tools does the city actually have at its disposal to alter the way the land is used?
But here’s the complicating factor at work that usually ends up going unacknowledged in these pleas: When all of these parking lots are privately owned by people who can, by law, do with the land what they please (with a few restrictions of course), what tools does the city actually have at its disposal to alter the way this land is used?
I posed this question a couple of weeks ago to Beth Elliott, Principal City Planner in charge of downtown development, and, as it turns out, the city is trying to figure this out, too. (At the time we spoke, Elliot was in talks with various consultants who might be hired to develop a comprehensive plan for downtown reform.)
While Elliott made it clear that the city hasn’t settled on any of these tactics and that others may exist that they’re currently unaware of (hence the consultants), she agreed to give me an overview of what tools the city has in its tool belt. A summary:
1. Change the zoning code. The city has already done what it can here. In 1999, the city voted to ban construction of any new commercial surface parking lots downtown. The only caveat: because of non-conforming use protections, all existing lots would be grandfathered in and allowed to remain in place.
2. Create tax structures that encourage development. One reason parking lot owners don’t choose to put their land to more productive use is that—in lieu of a buyer who is willing to pay the (by many accounts) unrealistically inflated asking prices many owners are seeking for their land—property taxes on unimproved lots are so low that it doesn’t take a whole lot of revenue to offset the expense of just sitting on them. One way to disincentivize this is to institute a split-rate tax structure that taxes the value of the land itself (its development potential) at a higher rate than it taxes improvements on that land (i.e., buildings and infrastructure). Essentially, this means that if land is being used at less than its maximum productivity, its owners are paying a disproportionate amount in taxes in order to keep it that way. Conversely, improvements to properties (i.e., the buildings themselves) are taxed at a lower rate, and so owners of developed land have a more balanced tax bill.
3. Borrowing against future tax revenues. A fancy name for this is Tax Increment Financing (or TIF). Basically, this is a method by which the city would subsidize development in certain areas that it sees as particularly promising or strategically important by borrowing from the future tax revenues that would be created by said development.
4. Subsidize development directly. Sometimes cities, states, or the federal government provide subsidies for development projects that have been identified as serving the greater public interest. This represents a way to get developers over a financial hump, or to encourage, for instance, a ten-story building where the developer might only have financing for six. Often, grants of this type come with mandates that developers provide a certain amount of affordable housing for low-income residents.
5. Exercise eminent domain. The city can exercise eminent domain for public use projects but not for economic development purposes. This means that while a park or transit infrastructure might fall under that heading, a mixed-use development project would not. (Not to mention, Elliott pointed out, downtown land is expensive these days, and the city would have to pay fair market value for it.)
6. Enforce existing zoning codes. In lieu of any of the above strategies, the city could require parking lot owners to meet existing zoning laws that require a certain amount of landscaping and screening of their lots. Most are not up to code, but the argument against this, Elliott said, is that property owners are even less likely to sell after they’ve been required to dump a bunch of money into improving that property.
Certainly there are other ways of bringing about change in this area, and the city is hiring consultants to explore just what those other avenues might be. But until then, it’s important to remember that, though we may choose to use it every now and again as a whipping post for our own frustration, the city isn’t all-powerful when it comes to dictating land use downtown.
I’ve got a new post up over at Streets.mn about why the first step to successfully incorporating the new Vikings stadium into downtown Minneapolis is to admit that the stadium itself won’t inspire the kind of development that characterizes a thriving downtown (for proof of this, take a walk through the sea of parking lots surrounding the Metrodome). I’ll have more up here a bit later that gets into more detail about the tailgating issue (you can only squeeze so much into 600 words) that’s caused a lot of concern among Vikes fans and urbanists alike. For now check out the above link—and many thanks to the folks over at Streets.mn for sharing.
We’re traveling this week, so expect lighter than usual posting. One piece of news we’re happy to announce (you know, in lieu of actual content) is that Empty Lots is now officially part of the Streetsblog Network, which means that some of the content you see here will also appear on the Streetsblog Network site, and you might also notice a fancy new badge in the corner of our home page, just in case you needed some hard proof.
Until next time,
After sedating riders with classical music proved less than effective, Minneapolis hopes to make Lake Street Station safer by installing security cameras, keeping the station clean.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut take a look at what we can learn from Zurich’s “parking revolution.” After establishing parking maximums in the ’90s (in comparison, we usually talk about parking minimums on this side of the pond), the city went a step further and finally established “a default parking level for the whole city, which is then reduced depending on whether or not a particular location is well served by transit.”
Talks are under way in Minneapolis about how to make Franklin Avenue safer and more appealing for bikers and pedestrians.
And Houston gets $188 million federal dollars for a 5.3-mile extension of its light rail system.
The Minneapolis Bike Coalition continues doing the kind of work the rest of us sit around thinking we should be doing right before we break out the chips and salsa and hunker down for a Netflix marathon of Breaking Bad. Last week, they delivered over 500 hand-written letters asking for protected bike lanes on Washington Avenue to Councilmember Lisa Goodman, Mayor Rybak, and County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. All of the letters were penned by downtown residents—exactly the kind of people the city is trying to attract more of into downtown. (The city hopes to double the area’s population by 2025.)
You can find an outline of the Bike Coalition’s plan (as well as a stellar argument in favor of it) here. One important component of any makeover the corridor receives is mentioned briefly in the post, but probably bears more emphasis/consideration. From the piece:
[From Hennepin Ave. to 5th Ave. South], pedestrians have to walk along a relatively narrow sidewalk with no buffer, close to seven lanes of fast-moving traffic. Large office buildings with blank walls lend a feeling of isolation to the few pedestrians who walk along this stretch today.
A protected bike lane, especially if built with a raised curb, would create an active buffer for people walking along the street, not only separating people from moving cars, but bringing life to the corridor. A wider sidewalk would have many benefits, but with no activity-generating uses, there is the danger of creating totally unused dead space in the heart of downtown.
Any successful plan for bringing life to Washington Avenue will have to involve the city reaching into its tool belt in an active effort to attract pedestrian-friendly businesses to the corridor, or else it risks remaining one of the aforementioned “dead spaces” with which this blog is so concerned.
The magic number here today is 6. As in 6 dollars. As in the daily price of a round-trip express bus fare in and out of downtown Minneapolis. As far as transit fares in this country go, this isn’t outrageous. New Yorkers pay $2.25 each way on the subway to get anywhere they want in their city. In D.C., a long-distance Metro trip comparable to many of our express routes will run you as much as $5.75 each way (though most trips are cheaper).
In those cities, however, because parking is mostly consolidated into above- or below-ground garages and priced accordingly, there’s an economic motivation for commuters to opt for transit. (The average price of daily parking in D.C. is $18, while the average price in New York ranges from $30 (downtown) to $41 (midtown).) Here in Minneapolis, though, because much of our downtown land is dedicated to surface parking (which costs about one-third the price of garage parking on a per-spot basis), we’ve managed to keep the price of parking very low. Self-defeatingly low if you’re Metro Transit, because people are rational beings, and as long as parking is as cheap or cheaper than taking transit, most people will have little reason (other than their desire to lower their carbon footprint, which generally loses out to our desire to save money and time) to opt for the bus or the light rail.
Below is a look at the pricing schemes for many of the surface lots (and even a couple of garages) that line the 5th Avenue corridor of Downtown East, the area currently being studied by the city to figure out how this space can be used for something other than car storage. As you can see, the price of parking is consistently equal to or lower than the price of taking transit.
There’s a chain reaction that is set off by this kind of pricing: cheap parking leads to less transit use, which leads to less revenue for transit operators, which leads to decreases in the quality/frequency of service, which leads to even steeper drop off in transit ridership, which leads to even more traffic and congestion and car-centric policies downtown, which leads ultimately to the situation we’re faced with now: a downtown that is struggling to make itself appealing to potential residents because it’s clearly been built for cars, not for people.
A group of private investors in Nevada (led by a casino developer) looks to extend California’s high-speed rail line to Las Vegas. The rail line would go by the name XpressWest and would offer 90-minute trips from L.A. to Las Vegas for as low as $45.
Atlanta’s proposed 1% sales tax increase to fund new transit projects dies a predictable (and decisive, at 63%) death.
Residential segregation in the U.S. is on the rise, meaning Americans are more and more likely to live near people whose economic situations looks pretty similar to their own.
Last year, the tax benefit for commuters who used public transit was slashed while the benefit for those who paid for parking after driving to work increased. Now, a Senate committee paves the way for a reinstatement of the tax benefit for transit commuters.
In last week’s Star Tribune article on downtown parking, this blog was quoted vaguely referring to the “very subtle things” that architects and city planners can do that “communicate to you [whether or not a given route is a] good place to walk.” A smart critic of this statement might ask themselves: What exactly are these mysterious, subtle tactics by which designers of our urban spaces can trick/lure/entice us into walking? And furthermore, what exactly do we mean by a “good” place to walk anyway? (Another question, to be addressed in a later post, might be why it’s so important that our downtown prioritizes pedestrians in the first place.)
Lucky for us, architect/designer Steve Mouzon has been writing about just these questions, asking if we can actually quantify and measure what makes a “good” place to walk, and under what conditions people will decide to walk a given distance instead of drive.
The argument he’s making is essentially that the distances people will walk to get from one place to another vary widely depending on the surrounding environment. While travelers might be willing to walk up to two miles to get from one place to another in a densely built, high walk-appeal city like London or Paris, that distance shrinks to as low as 100 feet when a shopper is confronted with the prospect of walking across the vast stretches of pavement that often connect big box retail chains.
Mouzon’s walk appeal “measurables” include, among other things: 1) frequent view changes; 2) street enclosure (buildings on both sides of the street that make the space feel as comfortable as “an outdoor room”); 3) shelter from the elements (awnings, porch roofs, galleries, etc.); 4) frequent landmarks/goals along the way (similarly, you’re more likely to continue reading this post if it’s broken up into short, punchy paragraphs); and 5) side streets that are nearly as enticing as main streets.
(For a smart analysis of Mouzon’s walk appeal theory, check out Kaid Benfield’s take over at Atlantic Cities.)
Minneapolis has had great success in drawing pedestrians to Nicollet Mall by essentially using all of the above tactics. But as soon as you venture away from this stretch, you’re hard pressed to find streets flush with pedestrians (though Hennepin Ave. occasionally comes close). One reason for this is that many of our shops and storefronts are clustered in indoor malls (i.e., Gaviidae Common) connected by the Skyway, rather than lining the streets where they would be part of the “frequent view changes” Mouzon refers to. Another reason is that we’ve designated only a few areas of downtown (Nicollet/Hennepin/Washington Aves.) as places where these kinds of considerations should be enacted, corralling pedestrians onto only a few streets while leaving the spaces between them devoid of much that would lure pedestrians.
Lastly, of course, is the matter of all of this surface parking (140 parking lots account for about one-third of total downtown land). Surface parking lots fail nearly every one of Mouzon’s measurables. The views are bleak and monotonous, street-scapes are flat, gray, and unenclosed, and there’s no shelter from sun or rain. If the city wants to make the kinds of changes Mouzon describes that will draw people out of their cars, out of the skyways, and onto the streets, then condensing all that surface parking is job number one.
On Wednesday, Maya Rao over at the Star Tribune published a look at the sea of parking lots plaguing downtown and the steps being taken by city officials to figure out how the spaces could be transformed. (This blog was also featured in the piece.) The piece was the day’s most read article over at the Strib website, and inspired more than a few passionate comments. Check out our response here.
Yet another reason that a thriving downtown is important: attracting top talent (and the businesses that want to hire them).
Big box retailers shrink and contort in order to squeeze themselves into unpredictable and unconventional urban spaces.
Baltimore sees immigrant-friendly policies as the key to staving off decades of population decline. From the piece:
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) has told Latinos, in particular, that she is counting on them to help Baltimore gain 10,000 families within a decade. As a first step, she signed an order in March prohibiting police and social agencies from asking anyone about immigration status — and in the order, she explicitly asked federal immigration authorities to tell anyone they arrest that they are not agents of the city.
The Star Tribune has a great article up today about the sea of parking lots downtown and the steps being taken by city officials to better use this very valuable, very underutilized space. (Full disclosure: this blog is featured in the piece.) I’ll have a more thorough response to the article up in the next day or so, but for now, a couple of brief notes about the conversation that is currently taking place in the comments section of the Star Trib piece and elsewhere.
It’s an indisputable fact that cars are a big part of how people get around in the Twin Cities. It’s also an indisputable fact that they will continue to be into the foreseeable future. This is unlikely to change, and for many people, relying on cars to get to and from downtown is entirely necessary for a whole host of valid reasons. It has always been the position of this blog that if people want to drive to and from downtown, they should very well be able to. The real issue that is being addressed in the article and by this blog (perhaps a bit too subtly at times, given the number of people who assume that city planners want to do away with cars downtown entirely) has to do with how much space we as a city want to dedicate to temporarily housing those cars while their drivers sit at their desks during the workday, and how dedicating so much actual, physical land to parking (as opposed to, say, neatly stacking those dozens of parking lots on top of one another in vertical parking garages or beneath our office buildings in underground garages) shapes the way that we interact with (or choose not to interact with) the downtown corridor.
Downtown should be a place for everyone, whether you choose to bike, walk, take the train, or drive to get there. But more than anything (and I think this point is less obvious than it may at first seem), it must first be a place that any of us would want to visit in the first place. Part of making that happen is to make better use of the limited space we’ve carved out for ourselves. (Even the parking lot owners quoted in the article admit that the lots are a blight to our city’s urban core.) Another part of making that happen is to ensure that the cost of parking reflects the true cost of providing it (including the lost revenue the city could earn by using the space for housing or commercial uses). The fact that you can park for an entire day for as little as $5—or, in other words, 17% less than the cost of getting to and from the city via an express bus—is part of the reason that there is so much complacency with the status quo.
More to come this week. For now, thanks for reading.
Growth in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is finally outpacing that of the surrounding suburbs, a reversal of a decades-long trend that seems to be part of a nationwide shift toward urbanization.
Bikers are using helmet-mounted cameras the way airplanes use black boxes to record crashes, according to the New York Times.
Berlin turns its parking lots into people parks as part of PARK(ing) Day.
June was the third driest month in the last 118 years. Over at Atlantic Cities, Kaid Benfield tells us how sprawl exacerbates the effects of drought.
One of this blog’s earliest posts had to do with the ghost town effect of all of the surface parking in downtown Minneapolis. So much surface area downtown (as much as one-third, by some estimates) is dedicated to parking—most of which is for commuters—that on evenings and weekends when those commuters aren’t around, there remain vast swaths of pavement surrounding the core of downtown that sit empty, creating a kind of asphalt fortress around the city center that sends a clear message to visitors and residents about how one is meant to interact with this space.
The post focused mostly on a stretch of road along 5th Avenue South between 10th Street and 2nd Street, and at the time, we didn’t provide our usual statistics regarding the ratio of cars to parking spots because, well, we had all of these great photos that we thought needed to be out in the world right then, and counting all of those parking spots would have taken so…much…time. Hours, at least. Maybe an entire day. So we went ahead with the post sans figures, because the photos themselves were compelling enough.
Well, over the weekend, we finally took the time to crunch the numbers, and—to say the least—they are pretty staggering. Along a single stretch of 5th Ave. South (a stretch that occupies ten entire city blocks and spans three-quarters of a mile), drivers have their choice of no fewer than 7,401 parking spots. This number includes all parking lots and parking garages that can be accessed along this stretch of 5th Avenue and includes 2,666 surface parking spaces as well as 4,735 garage parking spaces spread between 5 above-ground garages. Most of these lots can be accessed for an entire day for five or six dollars (or less than it takes to get to and from downtown via an express bus), and most of them also don’t reach capacity even during the busiest times of the day.
The numbers say plenty, but nevertheless, we’ll go ahead and include some of the old photos as well in order to give you a sense of just how many of those spots get used during evenings and weekends.
The “Interchange,” a transit hub that will unite the city’s light rail lines, Northstar rail, and bus system, breaks ground downtown. Metro Transit says it’s investing in the city’s economic future, and the Star-Trib agrees.
Thirty-seven minutes from New York to Philly. Ninety-four from New York to DC. Come on, 2040!
In hopes of speeding commuters along, San Francisco becomes the first city in the U.S. to allow people to board from the front or the back of the bus. The revolution is upon us?
High-speed rail comes to California. Almost immediately, the state begins doing its best to ensure the project will be insolvent. Stephen Smith (no, not the ESPN reporter) has the dish on some of the backdoor dealings that led to the state rejecting (or barely considering) a cheaper proposal by a French company.
(Above: The Franklin Avenue Light Rail Station, as seen from the west side of Franklin Ave.)
There’s an interesting contradiction that arises when people start talking about tax reform in this country: In the abstract, we are overwhelmingly in favor of simplifying the tax code and lowering overall rates, especially when we’re told that doing so would actually raise revenues and chip away at the deficit. Sounds great, right? But when you get into the specifics of eliminating particular deductions, we are solidly against the necessary steps to reform.
This contradiction is also apparent when it comes to transit, and it’s the reason that the Hiawatha Light Rail runs along an elevated highway through an industrial no-man’s land rather than through high-demand transit zones. In the abstract, most of us would say that we would like our city to be better connected by transit, that we’re in favor of anti-congestion measures, that we wish we relied less on personal vehicles to get around town. But when that abstract desire is confronted with the very real steps necessary to make it a reality (i.e., constructing light rail stations close to where people live), it turns out we’re not so enamored with all of those lovely-sounding ideas.
For example: Franklin Avenue Station is 2 minutes from Cedar Riverside (a short walk to the U of M’s West Bank) and 4 minutes from downtown. By all measures, it should be one of the most desirable and easily accessible places to live for the many, many thousands of people who travel to both of those places each day. And yet, if you check out the aerial view of the station, you see that there’s no housing within nearly a quarter mile of the station.
Basically, building along the path of least resistance more or less guarantees that ridership will be lower than desired (or at least lower than in higher density, higher traffic areas), which is a way of handicapping transit modes that—even at their best—struggle to cover operating costs.
One argument for building along the path of least resistance (aside from the fact that it’s cheaper and easier than trying to buy up right-of-way in busy areas) is that it will promote future development in these areas. That’s a valid argument. So far that’s been slow to happen (it’s been eight years since the light rail opened for business), though there are finally housing projects underway near 38th and 46th Street stations and one in the works a stone’s throw from the Franklin Avenue Station. But it’s important to keep this essential contradiction of desires in mind when talking about transit and planning issues in the Twin Cities. It’s easy enough to point out what’s wrong with the status quo. The bigger challenge is packaging solutions in a way that can be swallowed by the very people they’re designed to serve.
The view (facing west) from the platform of Franklin Avenue Station.
The view (facing east) from Franklin Ave Station.
As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, the city of Minneapolis has set a goal of doubling the population of downtown Minneapolis by 2025. One of the big challenges facing the city when it comes to attracting this kind of growth and development is that there’s a kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma at work here: in order to attract residents to the proliferation of condos we’ve seen popping up along the waterfront (and to a lesser extent, elsewhere in downtown), you need to be able to offer them the kinds of amenities and retail opportunities that make paying a premium to live downtown worthwhile. But in order for these businesses to move in, there has to first be a customer base. Ace Hardware isn’t going to open up a store downtown if the only people who pass by their storefront are office workers on their lunch breaks.
Essentially, you need businesses and amenities to attract residents, but you need residents in order to attract those same businesses and/or amenities. (See also: Catch 22, chicken-and-egg, etc.)
It’s no wonder then that development is a slow, arduous, and expensive process. And it’s no wonder either that it often takes a fair amount of government investment to motivate and incentivize businesses to invest in the areas they’d like them to.
One way to address the problem is a strategy that’s just been enacted in downtown Oakland known as a “pop-up hood.” A pop-up hood is like a pop-up store (i.e., those weird costume shops that invade empty strip malls each Halloween) except it involves a group of businesses popping up at the same time on the same block, and that they’re meant to become permanent.
In Oakland, a group of investors was given $30,000 from the city to launch a project in which five businesses were given retail space on the same block in downtown Oakland rent-free for a period of six months. The space was occupied by an art gallery, a bike shop, a boutique clothing/gift shop, a jewelry store, and a home accessories shop. Thus far, the project appears to be a success. Four of the five original businesses are still around (their 6-months rent free expired in May) and three more are launching at the site this summer. And existing businesses in the area have also benefited from the project—according to Marketplace, coffee shops and restaurants around the retailers have seen their sales improve since the shops opened up, too.
Which is a great reminder that businesses benefit from proximity to one another and often couldn’t exist without this kind of clustering. A lone retailer on a block is much more likely to fail than one who is insulated by the presence of other businesses, which together as a whole attract lots more foot traffic by turning the block or neighborhood into a retail destination. By launching as a group, you decrease the likelihood of failure, which means you increase the number of businesses/entrepreneurs that suddenly want to move to your neighborhood, which also increases the desirability of the neighborhood for existing and potential residents.
Seems simple enough, right? Well, this week we’ll look at some areas in Minneapolis that we think might be good candidates for this type of project. But we’d like some suggestions from you, too. Are there blocks in our fair city that are primed for this kind of thing?